Beware (other) paradigm shifts in Christian theology

Roger Olson discusses what he calls a “paradigm shift in Christian theology” in the modern era. The largely novel thesis is that Jesus is the full and perfect revelation of God. There is no other God “lurking behind Jesus with a different character, disposition, than the one revealed in the person of Jesus Christ”. Or in the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” For theologians like Greg Boyd this means, in particular, that the seemingly violent God of the Old Testament has to be reinterpreted through the lens of the crucified and “pacifist” Jesus.

Olson notes the statement in the Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century AD) that “Violence has no place in the character of God” (7:4) and argues that the “immediately surrounding context indicates strongly that this strange statement is based on the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect manifestation of God”.

This is a little misleading. The writer is speaking only about the manner in which God sought to save people; he is not making the crucified Christ the hermeneutic for rereading the Old Testament:

When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion, not compulsion (biazomenos), for compulsion (or “violence”: bia) is no attribute of God. When he sent him, he did so as one calling, not pursuing; when he sent him, he did so as one loving, not judging.

The next sentence seems to affirm a future judgment:

It is also of great significance that the writer has almost no interest in the Jewish story leading up to Jesus. The Jews had at best a superstitious and deficient knowledge of God. The pagans had no knowledge at all. So Jesus constituted to all intents and purposes a fundamentally new revelation of the true God:

For what person had any knowledge at all of what God was before he came? … No one has either seen or known him, but he has revealed himself. And he revealed himself through faith, which is the only means by which one is permitted to see God. …after conceiving a great and marvellous plan, he communicated it to his child alone. Now as long as he kept it a secret and guarded his wise design, he seemed to neglect and be unconcerned about us, but when he revealed it through his beloved child and made known the things prepared from the beginning, he gave us everything at once, both to share in his benefits and to see and understand things that none of us ever would have expected. (Diog. 8:1, 5-6, 9-11)

Here we see how, at a very early stage, the idea developed that Jesus could be understood theoretically as the definitive revelation of God apart from the narrative-historical arrangement of scripture. This is the beginning of the triumph of theology over history. This is the first and decisive paradigm shift in Christian theology.

Once the point has been established, it becomes routine to read the Bible backwards: we start with the Greek Trinitarian construct, read the New Testament narrowly on that basis as a Christian text, and hammer and hack at the Jewish Old Testament until it fits the Procrustean bed of our orthodoxy.

Olson goes so far as to say that one of the implications of the doctrine that Jesus is the perfect revelation of the character of God may be that “our Bibles should begin with the New Testament”. He has on occasion encouraged his students to “read the Bible backwards”.

Perhaps the Gospel of John is an oddity, an exception, an outlier, an anachronism. Perhaps it’s actually the least helpful book for understanding the God of the Bible.

To make the point, he asks them: “If you could only translate one book of the Bible for a people group without the Bible in their language, which book would it be?” Most of them answer the Gospel of John, which is hardly surprising, because they have all been theologically preconditioned.

These are interesting questions.

To start with, there are other ways we might reorganise the canon—arrangements that would give us a better impression of its historical character. I would suggest, for example, that the New Testament story really begins with Daniel 7-12. It is the clash with European pagan empire in the second century BC that determines the apocalyptic arc of the hope that was placed in Jesus, culminating in the judgment on Babylon the great and the establishment of the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15; 18:1-20:6).

Or more simply, why not dispense with the distinction between the two “Testaments” altogether and just have a unified set of texts telling the story of the God of Israel and the nations, with the Gospel of John tacked on the end as an afterthought?

So in light of that, which one book of the Bible gives us the best understanding of the Christian message?

John’s Gospel may well portray Jesus “most clearly as the perfect revelation of the character of God”. But that should leave us wondering whether the rest of the New Testament really has to be understood as a rather muddled and unclear attempt to make the same point. Perhaps John is an oddity, an exception, an outlier, an anachronism. Perhaps it’s actually the least helpful book for understanding what God as up to in the first century AD.

I would propose, instead, either Acts or Revelation. In their very different ways, they both tell the story of how the God of Israel reformed his own people, put a greater son of David on the throne to rule throughout the coming ages, and set about the long arduous task of taking control of the Roman Empire through the faithful witness of men and women who believed that Jesus now reigned at the right hand of the Father.

The crucifixion of Jesus was part of this process. As John the Seer puts it, only the Lamb who was slain was able to open the seals of judgment on Israel and the pagan nations (Rev. 5:9-10). But the story as a whole reveals YHWH as the God who bends history to his own purposes and for his own glory.

Philip Ledgerwood | Wed, 08/22/2018 - 15:59 | Permalink

I wish we had something like the book of Acts through Paul’s eyes.

Andrew, in what sense do you think texts like John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3, and Colossians 1:15 argue that Christ reveals God? I mean, these texts aren’t immediately referring to his deeds of power or to his ethical teachings, etc. So what about Christ is like God exactly? Is there anything specific in mind? Or is the assumption that Christ is like God in every possible way?

Very good insights. I have found that the Gospel of John is heavily influenced by Greek dualism and metaphysics. I have serious doubts that it is an accurate account of the words of Jesus. The Jesus presented in its pages seems to be a very different Jesus from the one we find in the Synoptics.

Helge Seekamp | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 07:47 | Permalink

 Thanx very much for this insight into the first paradigmen-shift in ancient church times, Andrew.

You didnt mention Marcion (140 p.Chr.)here, but the anti-jewish conception of Christian theology is on the track…
Very helpful, I think the 2 esential proposals: 

  1. Cancel the artificial difference of the 2 testaments
  2. Start the Story with Daniel
peter wilkinson | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 13:24 | Permalink

I like the title. I presume it means “other than the one held by me or you.”

Helge Seekamp | Mon, 08/27/2018 - 14:12 | Permalink

One more thing:

  • I like your approach, Andrew, to historize the reading auf the scriptures (instead of theologize it). Because, this is the only way to have a guiding counterpart contra/pro any Theology (this is one focus of the “sola scriptura”-principal of the evangelical movement since Luther). 
  • I learned from the German Frank Crüsemann in his essay about the selfunderstanding of new testament authors of their “holy scriptures” (the old testament LXX), that the interpreation must work from the old testament to give meaning the later so called new testament. Hermeneutically their is no backward-interpretation possible (then this is an anachronistically interpretation).
  • So with Marcion ca. 140 p. Chr. the Anti-Judeo-Interpretaion of the Christevent started…Each time from theological prejudices of different sources.
  • My antidot: The only helpful interpreation should work from the narrative of the old testamant, the conenant-Isreal-people. That is, as I understand Andrew, one of the implicit values of the historical narrativ exegesis.

Thanks, Helge. It doesn’t look as though Crüsemann’s book is available in English, sadly. It looks as though it would be very useful.

The drawback with mentioning Marcion is that it is too easy to isolate him as an extremist and so miss the extent to which Christian thought quite widely, including orthodox Christian thought, was losing touch with its Jewish origins.

I totaly agree: Marcion was only the heavy beginner of an sad way of false (backward) reading the scriptures. I like your contextual approach: Telling us, that each time has it challenge to interpret the holy scriptures.

But no right to reframe everything! I heard for example the classical argument: Yes, read from old Testament to New Testament, but then again from Christology (new Testament) backwards… This inconsistent behaviour we have to question… as wrong hermenteutical approach.